Sunday, November 27, 2011

County Nurse

By Peggy Dern
(pseud. Erolie Pearl (Gaddis) Dern), ©1961
Cover illustration by Robert Maguire

County nurse Beth Mason was young, beautiful, dedicated to her work and deeply in love. Doctor Cary Latham was bored by his patients and resentful that he must spend three years in a backwoods community. Yet they had to work together and the surprising climax to the conflict between them leads to a love story of truly dramatic impact.


“If you’re planning to welcome the man, serve his supper and show him to his room, you look fine. If you’re planning to marry him—”

“ ‘Is there anything I can do for you before I go?’ she asked, every inch the docile, well-trained nurse addressing one of those lordly beings, a doctor.”

“Unless you want to smell like a walking advertisement for my business, you don’t shake hands with me, Doctor. Boiling, cleaning and deviling crabs and shucking shrimp is not exactly a fragrant business.”

“You do agree with me then that the role nature meant for women is their finest career?”

“From what I hear you are a neat blend of Dr. Pasteur and Gregory Peck.”

“If all the really nutty people were shut up, there wouldn’t be enough left to keep things going on the outside.”

“Making the rounds, looking after the sick and ailing is your very life. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever have the nerve to ask you to give it up.”

“The education that can be found in books is only half, and the smallest, least important half.”

“Is this a private fight? Or can anyone get into it?”

This book has one of the worst back-cover blurbs ever. The truth of the story is that Dr. Cary Latham is the typical big-city snob from Atlanta, forced to work in the back country of Georgia to repay the state aid he received for his medical education. En route to his new home in Kerryville, he gets lost on the back-country roads and almost runs over a beautiful 19-year-old girl. “I was waiting for you,” she gasps breathlessly, “to beg you to take me away— ” But then a man falls out of the woods after her. John Nordman is Meredith Warrener’s uncle, and under Uncle John’s watchful eyes, she assures Cary she’s perfectly fine, takes John’s arm, and the two disappear back into the swamp. Naturally, Cary is deeply intrigued.

He arrives at the house where he will be living, the home of county nurse Beth Clay and her mother Amy, the only house in town with plumbing and electricity. They tell Cary that no one has actually seen Meredith in ten years, that her uncle keeps her isolated in the decaying family mansion—it used to encompass 10,000 acres and own 5,000 slaves—with only him and the aged black housekeeper for company. When Cary chides John about this later, John answers that he is “unwilling that she should have friends among the dolts and clods of Kerryville […] Do you wonder I want to protect her innocence, her loveliness?” Sounds a bit perverse to me.

Cary grudgingly settles in, and Beth immediately starts a grudge of her own, recognizing him as the city snob he admittedly is. Cary, to his credit, takes a more direct approach, calling Beth on her prejudice against him, pointing out that he has never said “any of the other unpleasant names you are hanging on them and trying to credit to me.” After this Beth defrosts a bit. She thinks of him with “a warmth in her heart,” and he evaluates her as “the perfect doctor’s wife”—nevermind that she is affianced to the town lawyer, Ben Cooper, who we see very little of through most of the book.

Soon after his arrival in town, Cary is approached by the sheriff, who asks him if he’s heard anything about a monster running loose in the woods or treated anyone for “peculiar wounds—maybe scratches, claw marks or teeth marks.” Then a mossy old half-blind squatter near the Warrener house reports that he sees Meredith cavorting in the woods with the monster. Shortly afterward, Meredith falls from her bedroom window in the middle of the night and sprains her ankle. Cary, called to the case, learns from her that she has a friend in the swamp who will starve if she doesn’t bring him food, which she is now unable to do. Cary, having spent less than an hour of his life with Meredith, mulls over the question of whether he is in love with her. “Oh, for Pete’s sake! When he did [think of marriage], it would not be some lovely, fragile, haunted patient!” Uh, maybe it will. And so, against his better judgment, he agrees to leave a sack of groceries in the woods for her, but that darned squatter sees him, takes the supplies, and rats Cary out to the sheriff. And thanks for the food, Doc.

The sheriff has decided the swamp monster must be an escaped convict: “We’ve got to catch him and lock him up before he does anybody any harm!” He tells Cary that he and his posse are going to set out another pile of groceries and lie in wait: “ ‘And when he comes out to get it—’ He closed a big, ham-like fist as though he were closing it around the throat of the missing man.” So guess how this ends up? Cary shows up at the stakeout to put a stop to it, but the sheriff threatens him with jail, so Cary keeps quiet and just watches as a half-naked old man staggers to the food and is shot dead. As the men, “their guns cocked and ready,” stand around watching, Meredith flings herself on the old man’s body and screams, “You filthy murderers!”

Meredith now justifiably hysterical, Cary tries to take her home, but they are stopped. “She’s going to be questioned, Doc, and you might as well shut up,” snaps the good-hearted sheriff. Meredith tells them that the old man was a Seminole Indian, exiled from his people because in his youth he killed someone. Now feeble and toothless, he was starving until Meredith helped him. “And now you’ve murdered him—you filthy beasts!” she screams and faints dead away. The sheriff insists “we’ve done nothing but ask her a few questions we had a right to ask,” and says he plans to ask her more—but Cary finally grows a spine and snaps, “While she’s unconscious?” and takes her home. I’m amazed at how the injustice of this entire incident seems to pass over every other character’s head except the neurotic Meredith. The swamp man’s only possible crime is trespassing, but the squatter does this openly—and is clearly much more of a nuisance than the “monster”—and he’s walking around free. Maybe it helps if you’re white.

While she’s out cold, Cary convinces Uncle John that Meredith needs to get out of the house more, and John, shaken by Meredith’s association with the flea-bitten old Indian, finally agrees. When she’s awake, Cary tells her he wants her to date around—but he’ll be waiting for her, because he loves her. She thinks that over and agrees—then asks him to kiss her. “I always thought it would be like that!” she says, “Like walking on clouds and bumping your head against the stars.” For her part, Beth suddenly realizes that she’s been “the world’s worst silly ever, even for a moment, to think she wanted Cary, when Ben had been there all the time, a very part of her.” Ick and double ick.

Overall, this is a good book. The characters are well-drawn and the setup of the story—the mysterious woman in the decaying house, the monster in the woods—is intriguing and certainly unique. Beth’s mother is a fantastic character, smart and wry, always saying things like, “Have a cup of coffee, darling, and then you can explode.” But the situation with the old man in the woods is completely unsatisfying, as it feels like the sheriff has gotten away with a serious crime and ought to be prosecuted, or at least fired, but if his actions are hinted at being unjustified, he gets away with them. I was also disappointed that Cary so quickly falls for a clearly nutty teenager (remember, she is just 19) while Beth, out of the blue, goes gaga for a man who is a cipher throughout the book. If it had ended differently, this could have been a top-notch book. But even with its flaws, it’s a very pleasant read.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Nurse

By Lucy Agnes Hancock, ©1954
Cover illustration by D. Rickard

The life of a nurse is not an easy one, but Susan Trent enjoyed every minute of her work, even those times of tragedy when unavoidable accidents brought disaster, bloodshed and suffering. She found it absorbing because she shared in those difficulties and problems of all those whose lives and health she guarded. But Susan had not expected to be involved so deeply that the problems of others would affect her own secure existence. Nor that the sinister and deadly happenings in the busy shops and factories would culminate in her own quiet office.


“Almost she wished she were a girl with a past—an intriguing past.”

“Life held many far more important things than mere marriage—or did it?”

“I haven’t eaten a little girl in years. Reformed, you know.”

“How a few pleasant words of commendation brightened one’s day! Too bad more people didn’t go in for that sort of philanthropy.”

“Once she had asked Dr. Marshall why professional men were notoriously such poor penmen and he had laughed and told her it was necessary to impress the public just as using long unpronounceable medical terms did.”

“You know what men are. They don’t know what real pain is; that is, most of them don’t. If they had to suffer as we women do they’d be less ornery.”

“It was queer that it so often rained just at twelve and at five when most people were quitting work.”

The cover of this book is certainly a tough act to follow. Though it is a bit of a spoiler—you’ll get to the penultimate chapter before the heat-packing thugs make an entrance—I’m hard-pressed to think of many better. I know Ms. Hancock to be capable of very fine work (see
Graduate Nurse), and while The Nurse is a pretty good book, it’s just not quite that good.

Written in 1954, this book is set more than ten years earlier. The United States has not yet entered World War II, and the men are always debating enlisting in the Army versus waiting to be drafted. (Even our heroine, Susan Trent, discusses enlisting, as “nurses will be needed, you know.”) In the meantime, Susan lives in the family home in the eastern town of Ashton, working at the Whittle Tool and Implement Plant with Dr. Joel Marshall and supporting her family: widowed mother; middle sister Barbara, age 19; and baby brother Dick, age 17, who is reluctantly studying to be a lawyer as his father was. Susan’s salary keeps the family afloat and allows Barbara the luxuries that have turned her into a spoiled brat who hangs out with the wrong crowd. Susan, almost to compensate for her younger sister, “seldom had dates—she wasn’t the type.”

So while sis is partying—and even vomiting in the bathroom at 3 a.m. after a hard night of drinking—Susan has only Dr. Marshall in her life, with whom she has shared nothing but the most professional of relationships, until architect Alan MacDowell comes into her life. He’s working on a plan for housing for the factory workers, but Dr. Marshall doesn’t approve. Could it be that the doctor is a bit jealous? Well, of course he is, and he asks Susan out on a date—the first time he’s ever noticed her—shortly after she starts seeing Alan. She can’t go, as she has a date with Alan that night, but she thinks about how much she cares for him. “He was such a grand person!” Then Susan hears that the doctor is married to a woman who has been in a psychiatric asylum for the last 15 years. So the doctor moves to the back burner—and Alan also has qualities that make him unattractive to Susan, such as his infatuation with the beautiful and charming Barbara when he spends an evening at the Trent home.

Of course, everything sorts out in the end, down to the wayward sister, but overall the plotting is pretty weak. Some things (a worker with an apparent gunshot wound to the shoulder, a man of Austrian descent suspected of bombing the factory, the identity of the person who has been writing threatening letters to Dr. Marshall for years) are never explained, and the wrap-up explanation of why the two gunmen come after Susan and Dr. Marshall is so strange and loose that I still don’t get it. But the plot is not really important; as with Graduate Nurse, the heart of the book is the heroine’s daily life, and this is what makes the story worth reading. Susan visits numerous patients, handles emergencies in the plant, frets about her sister, cooks eggs and bacon with her brother, soothes her nervous mother. It’s an old-fashioned, sweet and simple life, even quaintly socialistic, in which the emphasis is on the community over the individual, where men who take shortcuts on the job wind up with injuries and a guilty conscience for thinking they knew better and trying to buck the system. Here a secretary is a far better person than a socialite, and ambitions of working as a machinist or joining the army are held in higher esteem than going to college.

I find a number of parallels between this book and Ms. Hancock’s real life. As with Graduate Nurse, this story touches sympathetically on psychiatric patients; Ms. Hancock’s oldest sister lived in an institution for most of her life, so perhaps there is a connection there. Ms. Hancock also held various positions at International Harvester throughout most of her career, as she didn’t start publishing books until she was in her late 50s, and this informs the book’s setting in the tool factory. And of her seven siblings, only two married (the oldest of her three brothers); Ms. Hancock lived with three of her sisters all her life, so their home must necessarily have been the center of their lives. The fondness and devotion Ms. Hancock shows for family life—Susan’s eventual fiancĂ© even agrees to move into their house with them—makes me think that her home must have been very happy indeed.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The New Nurses

Arlene Hale, ©1970
Cover illustration by Edrien King

Lynn Lawrence and Bobbi Wagner vowed to forget Chicago and devote themselves entirely to their nursing careers. Lynn was white, Bobbi, black, and Quiet Fairview General Hospital seemed an “island of contentment” until … Dr. Paul Hamilton appeared and charmingly, persistently, he began to break down Lynn’s resistance. Despite the memory of a shattered romance, Lynn knew she was beginning to fall in love again. While for Bobbi the attentions of handsome sax-player DeVore Johnson, were proving to be more of a distraction than she had planned. And just when she thought she had really left the ghetto behind, brother Johnny showed up in Fairview looking for trouble. Then a supervisor’s job opened up that both girls desperately wanted. Too late they realized that this sort of competition would threaten their careers, their friendships and their love affairs.


“It’s all over, Dad. The break was clean. So clean that it is sterile, in fact. I’ll never be infected again.”

“In a way, Steve had been good training for her. She had learned a great deal about the male animal from her association with him, and Doctor Hamilton, when it was all said and done, was just another male animal.”

“I’m forty-two and single and darned glad of it. I’ve got no complaints and if I need something to warm my feet on a cold winter night, I can always get a hot-water bottle.”

“All landladies are a decent sort until you miss a month’s rent.”

“Was her poor, frozen heart beginning to thaw out at last?”

“There was never time for women in my life. I’ve paid for it in loneliness.”

I deliberately avoided reading this book for a while because the cover illustration of that blonde woman with the big head put me off. The doctor smoking a pipe in the background (I’m always intrigued by the contradiction of a medico who smokes) and the unheard-of major character who isn’t white finally won me over, though—that and the fact that as soon as I get it over with I can tuck the book away and that big-headed woman won’t be staring vapidly at me from my to-read pile.

This is a tale of two nurses: Lynn Lawrence, who is blonde and blue-eyed; and Bobbi Wagner, who is not. The two are “as different as black and white,” in Bobbi’s words. “What a contrast there was. Bobbi was Negro, light-skinned and while not strikingly beautiful, she was nice-looking and the uniform suited her. Lynn was a golden blonde, with very blue eyes and a peaches-and-cream complexion. They were a startling combination.” They’ve been friends and roommates since nursing school in Chicago. Lynn has just left Chicago to escape a broken relationship with Steve, about whom we learn little over the course of the book, apart from the fact that he and Lynn are not getting married after all and Lynn’s crushed little heart will never live again. She’s pleaded with Bobbi to come with her, and Bobbi has agreed: She’s escaping too, but it’s from her little brother Johnny, a good-for-nothing mooch always tapping her for money since he can’t hold a job.

The two move in together, but they’re not all that close, and much is made of this throughout the book: “Though they were friends, there were some things that they had never fully shared with each other.” This is partly due to their different races, we are told. Lynn “didn’t know what it was like in the Harlem of Chicago and that was scarcely her fault. But all the same, it made a breech between them that perhaps they never would be able to span.” It’s also due to the fact that Bobbi can be a bit of a bitch, with “moods … sometimes as black as her skin.” And now she’s in a real funk about Johnny, who soon shows up, grafts himself onto the girls’ couch, and seems content to moulder there indefinitely. Lynn professes not to mind, but Bobbi certainly does. She can’t actually kick Johnny out, though, because then he’ll go sponge off their parents, and “it would kill Dad if he knew the sort of man Johnny really was. Mamma would accept it quietly but it would put more lines in her face, more gray in her hair, more sadness in her eyes. They’d endured enough!” Then Bobbi hears about these robberies in town … and Johnny goes out only at night … and he wears all these flashy clothes …

Of course, we have to work in some romance for the two. Lynn starts dating Dr. Paul Hamilton, and Bobbi hooks up with DeVore Dunsmore, a groovy sax player in town for a six-month gig who wears “red socks, a red tie and had a matching red handkerchief in his breast pocket. His shoes were two black mirrors. A small diamond glittered on his left pinkie.” Did I mention that he’s a real swinging cat? Before long, DeVore hears that Johnny is involved in a gang called, quaintly, the Rovers, and he also hears that the Rovers are responsible for the robberies, which leaves Bobbi smoking cigarettes like a chimney, pacing the apartment, rudely rebuffing all Lynn’s efforts to help.

Meanwhile, the nursing supervisor is felled by a brain tumor, and now that job is up for grabs. Both Lynn and Bobbi want it, but Bobbi is convinced that she will never get it because she’s black. “Oh, if she could only get that super’s job! It would prove she was more than just that black girl from Chicago!” This makes her more than a little nasty to Lynn, and she accuses Lynn of dating the doctor in order to get the job, causing “the first serious rift of their friendship.” Johnny figures out what’s eating Bobbi, and attempts to cheer her up: “You know what’s wrong, don’t you? You forget where you’re from. You forget you’re just a black girl. Nothing’s going to change that, Bobbi. You’ll never make it. Because you’re black. You got to make your own luck when you’re black!” Thanks, bro.

One night Johnny doesn’t come home—he’s been beaten to a pulp by a bunch of unnamed men at the club where he and the Rovers hang out. Johnny refuses to say anything at all about the incident, but he swears to Bobbi on the Bible that he’s not involved in the robberies, so Bobbi knows he’s telling the truth, because even Johnny would never lie on the Bible. When pressed, he tells Bobbi that he got his clothes from a rich woman who liked him, and Bobbi is completely relieved: Her brother is not a thief, he’s a gigolo! Phew! Johnny is offered a more respectable job in the hospital, but he turns down this chance at redemption: “I’d just be cleaning up, doing the dirty little jobs. That’s not for Johnny Wagner!” That night he blows town without saying goodbye, so the questions of why he was beaten or what’s going to become of him is never resolved. You can’t help thinking that it’s only a matter of time before he’ll turn up again, and not exactly a changed man.

The gals’ love lives aren’t nailed down either, but Lynn gets the happier ending. She and Paul profess their love for each other, and while the ring isn’t on her finger at the end of the book, you know it won’t be long. DeVore likewise tells Bobbi he wants to marry her, and that she can move around the country with him as he plays with his band, getting jobs as a nurse everywhere she goes. “We’d have a swinging good time,” he tells her. “Be a vagabond nurse?” she snorts, and I can see the title of Arlene Hale’s next book. But Bobbi never claims to love DeVore, and she tells him there are things she has to do first, “and then later she would think about love, marriage, a home, and maybe even kids!” DeVore claims he’s going to hang around until she’s ready, but it’s unclear how he’s going to manage that when his gig runs out in a few months. So either she doesn't get the guy, or she sacrifices her own desires to marry a man she doesn't love and take on a lifestyle that doesn't seem to excite her.

Race is not something often addressed in a VNRN. In this book, we are encouraged to feel sympathy for the difficulties Bobbi faces—“the insults, the sly looks, the talk, the open prejudice,” including her perceived obstacles getting the supervisor job and even a decent apartment: “A lot of people don’t want to rent to Negroes,” Bobbi points out. The fact remains, though, that the two major black male roles are overwhelmingly stereotypical. DeVore is a decent guy, but that flashing diamond irks me just a bit. And while the white girl’s straightforward problems are quickly disposed of, Bobbi’s complex issues are punted into the future, and she does not get the VNRN heroine’s traditional—or the white character’s—happy ending. Even the issue of who gets the supervisor position, though resolved in a way that allows the friends to smooth things over, doesn’t address the fundamental issue: Could Bobbi ever hope to get promoted, or is prejudice working against her in the hospital? So while this book attempts to tackle a tough issue in a fair way, in the end it says one thing but itself doesn't treat the two women equally.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Visiting Nurse

By Margaret Howe, ©1954
Cover illustration by Darrell Green

Alice Gregory had wanted to be a nurse from the time she had been a child. Now her dream had come true in a very special way—she was a visiting nurse to the blind. Each day Alice learned a new lesson in courage from her patients. Only one, Leila Haley, seemed at the brink of despair. The girl had beauty and a magnetic attraction for me. But the loss of her sight had made her sullen and resentful. It was Alice Gregory’s task to restore Leila’s desire for life. Then the terrible moment came when Alice discovered the truth. She and Leila were not only nurse and patient—they were two girls who desperately loved the same man. Could Alice Gregory remain true to her sworn oath to help her patients in every way? Or should she fight for her own chance for happiness?


“I hope I won’t have to wear glasses. My boyfriend wouldn’t like that.”

“Today a doctor is judged more by his bedside manner and his golf score than by his skill with a scalpel.”

“Women have just one idea—how to spend money.”

“It’s easy to stumble into a mistake, but hard to have the courage to face about and acknowledge it.”

“Men aren’t like women, Alice. They got a need to have someone help them in spite of their belief that they’re strong and self-sufficient.”

“It takes more than love to make a successful marriage.”

VNRNs written in the 1950s or earlier have, most of them, a charming, quiet way about them. Maybe it’s the simple life they describe, where the focus is on the community and family more than the individual, a world a little more removed from our modern life. Milk still arrives daily in a truck, phones and television are not ubiquitous, people go home for lunch. I’m not saying all that is a good thing; certainly people’s lives are far more circumscribed and narrow than they are in VNRNs just a decade younger. But it’s certainly enjoyable to look in the window on the gentle glow for a little bit.

Visiting Nurse is one such book. Alice Gregory is a nurse for the blind living in Hastings, Ohio. She’s kind of a plain gal, but she’s managed to hook Bart Hanson, a flashy dresser with a flashier social life. Bart’s uncle, Dr. Norman Evans, has been “almost a father to her and it was through his influence and assistance that she received her nurse’s training.” As it happens, Dr. Evans went blind two years ago, so Alice’s choice of specialization is paying off for him now, as she drops by his house every morning to see him as both a friend and a patient. Dr. Evans is, of course, thrilled about the engagement between Alice and Bart. “It will be a good thing for Bart when you two get married,” the doctor tells Alice. “What he needs is a wife and children to keep him steady.”

But from the book’s opening chapter, we see that as much as Alice would love a closer tie to Dr. Evans, and looks forward to living in his house when she and Bart are married, the idea of actually being married to Bart, who is so different from her, makes her uneasy. This perhaps stems from Bart’s disgust with Alice’s career and his insistence that she quit working once they are married. “The girls I know don’t get flat feet pounding around trying to help folks. Get wise, baby,” he sneers. But Alice loves her work, so she keeps postponing the wedding.

In the meantime, Alice is caring for Leila Haley, a trashy young waitress who has suddenly gone blind and mopes around her house in a dirty housecoat instead of learning the skills she will need to get by. Alice hopes that Leila’s boyfriend, whom Leila has not told of her condition or even seen since she became blind, will rally around and support her when he finds out. But Leila will not tell Alice who he is, so she gets Bart to take her to the seedy joint where Leila worked to see what she can find out. Bart is behaving strangely when they arrive, and when Alice finally tells Bart the name of her patient, “For a full minute, Bart stood stock-still. Then he hurried her toward the car. ‘Let’s get out of here,’ he said roughly.” Hmmmm. What could that possibly be about? Shortly afterward, Leila names Bart as the man, ending our suspense. Bart, of course, says he never met Leila, and if he did, he wouldn’t marry her. “When a man thinks of marriage, he doesn’t pick his wife from that type, believe me,” he tells her, and even if it were true, he would never see her again because “I never could stand handicapped people.” Alice is strangely not reassured by this and breaks off their engagement.

Enter Dr. Ben Harrington. He “would never give the women heart palpitations,” but he’s a brilliant new doctor at Hastings Memorial Hospital, and he shares some of Alice’s patients. (One of them, a blind woman with a blind husband, is pregnant, which is controversial in town: “There’s been some question about their right to have a child,” the doctor tells Alice.) Ben asks Alice out, and when he smiles, “Alice forgot that he was homely.” But he’s decided, like all the other young MDs, that he can’t get married until he can support a wife, so he won’t talk marriage, or even love, to Alice, who currently earns more than he does. “If you would only realize that together we could share something wonderful, and not allow stupid pride to keep you from telling me what I can see in your eyes every time you look at me,” she thinks. “But what can I do about it? Nothing.” So she never even broaches the subject of their feelings for each other, let alone their getting married. Instead she just wails about his fickleness on every other page.

Speaking of fickle, Bart has refused to have anything to do with Leila, and out of the blue marries an actress from Manhattan. This deters Leila not in the least, who tells Alice that she is still interested in Bart despite the fact that he now wears a ring on his left hand. “He isn’t the type of man to make any girl happy,” Alice says to Leila. “Who said anything about happiness?” Leila answers. “That’s the trouble with girls like you. You think too much about happiness and not enough about getting your man. I lost mine, but I’ll find a way to get him back.” Alice is shocked!!! But Leila’s attitude gives her pause: “Girls like Leila might be cheap in their ideas and crude in their approach to love, but at least when they wanted something they went after it.” Unlike some people …

In the final pages, Alice finally takes a cue from Leila and puts her cards on Ben’s kitchen table. It’s one of the more rewarding endings to a VNRN I’ve come across, because the heroine of the book actually evolves and becomes a stronger person. The book has other fine points: The writing is fairly smart, with occasional witticisms sprinkled throughout, and the characters—the trashy moll; the impetuous cad; the plain, hardworking country doctor—are so well-drawn and quintessential of the time period that it’s a pleasure to follow them. And the atmosphere of the book is gentle and warm, like a grandmother: She might be more than a little behind the times, but she’s wonderful to spend an afternoon with.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Surfing Nurse

By Diana Douglas
(pseud. Richard Wilkes-Hunter), ©1971
Cover illustration by Allan Kass

“Too good to be true!” was how Nurse Kara Simmon felt about her temporary assignment away from St. Mark’s. For she was on Surfari with the American Surfing Team as team nurse and as top competitor in the World Championships in Australia. And now this halcyon dream is abruptly shattered as she finds herself pulled by conflicting desires more turbulent and dangerous than the pounding surf … Caught between two men—brothers in name only. Surgeon/surfer Paul Denning, blond, handsome, coolly professional—who seems more interested in her skills than in herself as a woman. And Ross, the professional surfer—wild, headstrong, his animal magnetism undeniable… In conflict between the same, familiar world of nursing and an exciting new world of the professional surfer’s endless summers on the beaches of the world.


“Kara had won wolf whistles and applause herself when she walked into the South Sea Lounge with Ross. The spontaneity of that had made her feel good.”

“Let’s make this last dance really Hawaiian! The rest of you make a circle and undulate!”

“You don’t even know me yet. How can you when we haven’t even kissed?”

“She must stop him soon now, she knew. But for a moment still she could thrill to the male warmth pressing against her. Moments like this were few when you were a nurse, she remembered. Too often there was sickness and pain, grief and death. And those things built up tensions inside you.”

“These days everyone has doubts. It’s a symptom of the times.”

“They’re good guys, but they exaggerate like Texans.”

“It would be too much to look like you do and be able to cook like that too.”

“Some of the surfers were taking photos of an odd-looking building on the foreshore of Sydney harbor. It looked like something from science fiction, shaped like huge, streamlined orchestral shells in an intriguing pattern. One of the reporters who joined them at the rail explained that it was an opera house and something of a national joke with Australians. It had been years since the building began and nobody seemed to know when, if ever, it would be completed.”

To call this a nurse novel is a bit of a stretch. True, Kara Simmon is a registered nurse with a job at St. Marks Hospital in Los Angeles, and theoretically she’s the official nurse to—as well as a member of—a contingent of American surfers, but she doesn’t really do any nursing in this book. Mostly she’s catching a wave. She won the California state women’s surfing title this past summer, which gives her the right to enter a world title competition in Australia. Her surfing mentor, Paul Denning, just happens to be a surgeon at St. Marks. He’s the son of the founder of Denning surfboards, and actually dropped out of his internship twice to pursue surfing, but then decided to return to medicine. He’s the one who coached Kara to her surprising win in California, and the relationship is “an odd sort of intimacy into which sex did not intrude.” It’s not often you meet a VNRN that dares to use the word sex, but maybe that’s because this book was written by a man.

Paul’s younger brother Ross is also entered in the competition, and as the book opens, the American team is on a cruise ship steaming to Australia. Paul has had to remain back in the states practicing medicine, which is lucky for Ross and his enormous ego: “If Paul Denning was with us on this surfari, Paul Denning would win it,” she’s told by one of the other surfers. Ross isn’t likely to win the competition for Kara’s affections, either, the poor conceited sap. He’s convinced Kara is going to tumble for him any second and pursues her relentlessly, much to her annoyance. But when he finally catches up with her one night, he tells her that if she wins this competition, she could make a lot of money and travel the world endorsing Denning surfboards—and she needs his help as a coach to win. She tells him she’s not going to quit nursing, but she agrees to accept his coaching. Only then does he put the moves on her, which she curiously goes along with. I continue to be amazed at the number of women in these novels who kiss men they don’t like.

When the surfing team finally arrives in Australia, Ross takes her out to the beaches and teaches her that she has to maximize her scoring points with each wave. That night, at a beach party, a totally plastered Ross decides to try night surfing, though all the other surfers warn him of the danger. While out in the surf, he is attacked by a shark, which “fastened into his thigh and torn off a long strip of flesh all the way down to his heel.” Ew! Kara applies pressure to the femoral artery until the ambulance arrives, Ross is whisked into surgery, and his life is saved, though his surfing career is over. The never-mentioned upside to this is that he is now spared from ever having to compete directly with his brother in a surfing competition, and so can live on as a champion in his own mind.

The next day, Kara and the rest of the team is back surfing at the beach, the callous dudes. Later she tries to call Paul, but guess what! He’s quit the hospital and is on his way to Australia! He arrives a day later, and Kara quickly persuades him to take Ross’s spot on the team: “Then, and only then, will you really know to which world you belong.” He also takes over Ross’s place as Kara’s coach: “Don’t try any last-minute gimmicks, no matter what Ross tells you,” he advises her. “Surf your own natural style.” During her heat at big competition, she follows his advice—until her last wave, when she hangs five, whatever that means. She knows Paul wouldn’t like that, but thinks Ross would—“Ross was inclined to showboat that way himself.” She wins the heat by just one point, and now she’s in the finals. “She was tempted to try a left break, but memory of the chance she took hanging five drove it from her mind. It was better to stay with her natural style, surfing safely and as well as she could,” just like Paul advised her to do. So what is she doing with her next wave? Why, breaking left, of course. “Don’t ask me why I did that, Paul,” she says as she steps out of the surf onto the beach.

You can predict how this book is going to end in the first chapter. Apart from the shark attack, which takes a long time to unfold, not much happens in this book. It spends a lot of time surfing, but the jargon is so thick that it’s not really enjoyable to a non-surfer: “She set herself and took off, then saw Nerida dropping in on her right. Kara found herself turning instinctively left. She saw the danger at once: a fast right break with a toppling crest rushing toward her along the wall. Flat water ahead! She went into a tight bottom turn. The velocity she had built up steaming across that smooth wall turned her in the beginning of the flaky white—she was steaming back halfway up the face going right now. She was stoking in a glorious long slide ahead of the crest breaking well behind her. Coming out of it at the foot of the wall way right, she flipped out in a backhand turn and rode white water in to the beach.” Whatever that means. Oddly, the book allows Kara to win by following Ross’s advice, not Paul’s, but it’s Paul that she’s in love with and Paul’s lifestyle as a healthcare professional that she is completely devoted to. In the end, I’m just confused by what this book is trying to tell me, both in its message and its surfing descriptions. I wish I’d watched “Gidget” instead.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Shoreline Nurse

By Jeanne Bowman
(pseud. Peggy (O’More) Blocklinger), ©1965

Boarding the trawler that was to take her to her new home, Lorina Rodgers wondered if she had made the right decision. Was she crazy to leave her safe and hectic job at the mainland hospital to become the only nurse of this isolated, starkly beautiful island? Old Benjamin Jones, the island’s wealthy and crotchety owner, had been curiously intent on persuading the pretty young nurse to take the assignment. Lorina knew the island needed her, but she suspected that the cantankerous old man had another card up his sleeve—finding the right wife for his handsome, blond, and equally stubborn grandson. Before long, Lorina found herself caught in a tangle of island politics and deepening love that forced her to choose between her duty as a nurse—and her life as a woman.


“He gave her the kind of smile seldom seen off the Silver Screen.”

“He said all of the proper things, then went his way. And the two women went their normal way, to the kitchen.”

“There was something about a nurse’s uniform which turned a normally ugly girl into a beauty in the eyes of a patient.”

I have to say that I now pick up a Jeanne Bowman novel as I would a fork spearing brussels sprouts, but sometimes even tiny cabbages can surprise you. That said, they’re just never going to be my favorite.

Lorina Rodgers is nursing a wealthy old bastard, Benjamin Johnson, back to health. After he needles her relentlessly for days, she tells him off: “Calm down and shut up,” she says to him, “because if you don’t, I am going to fill you so full of injections you won’t come to until I have you laced in a strait-jacket. I have had it!” Naturally the old goat is instantly smitten. This works out for her so well that she sasses his gorgeous grandson, also called Benjamin Johnson, when he comes in to visit. When young Ben threatens to have her sacked, she responds, “Would you, please? I’d so appreciate it. I haven’t the courage to walk out on five years of training and experience, but I do so want to get away.”

It’s her mother, see, “who believes all daughters were born into this world to serve mama.” But Old Jamin, as the elder Johnson is unfortunately nicknamed, has a plan to help Lorina and himself at the same time: He tells Lorina she’s “too selfish to let her mother find a life of her own,” and then persuades her to come to live on the island he owns to care for his factory workers. But he has another motive: “He might not look like Cupid, but he had cupidity, and the one thing above all others he deeply needed was the right wife for young Ben.”

Out on the island, Lorina gets right to work setting to rights all the troubles that have come to the island’s population. She explains to an elderly woman that her son, who lives next door, painted his house pink not in defiance of the red-house-painting ways of their home country but because “pink represents new ways,” and her son “always wants the latest.” Another aged islander, crippled by a heart attack, refuses to sit still all day despite the certain danger this brings to his health because “his sickness lay in being unable to contribute to the family income.” But he does like to whittle, and Lorina has a friend on the mainland who owns a gift shop who is looking for items just like the figurines he carves, and soon the whittler is bringing in big bucks. One young man is accident prone: “He had cut his hand on his scaling knife. And yes, it was a shining clean knife, scalded, ready for business. He’d been the business.” But Lorina sees right through this; really he is discontent with his life as a fisherman and hopes to leave the island and take up his true calling, forestry. She immediately pens a note to Old Jamin, who prior to opening the fishery logged every tree on the island, and suggests that he start a reforestation program. There’s lots more where those cures came from, but I’ll take pity; perhaps you have a weak stomach.

Meanwhile, Lorina’s mother is maneuvering to get her daughter back by sending her everything her daughter owns, including artwork from when she was in grade school. Mom disappears and wires her other daughters, who long ago abandoned mom for husbands, that only Lorina will be able to find her. Lorina mulls it over and wires her sisters that mom is at the nearest ski resort. “Why do we take on so much responsibility for the actions of others? How do we know giving in is the best thing for them?” she asks young Ben, just one round of many philosophical discussions about being “unselfishly selfish” by giving her mother everything the old bag has ever asked of her.

Needless to say, the book winds up with everyone’s problems solved: The island’s ailing economy is revived by a timely earthquake and an article that Lorina has given Old Jamin, Lorina’s mother finally figures out what she’s going to do with her life, Ben finds a wife, and Lorina finds a husband. These endings are each as improbable as all the other solutions Lorina has contrived throughout the book, so the fact that they come out of nowhere and are entirely unsatisfying is not surprising. Having suffered through several other of Ms. Bowman’s books, I expected that wacky pop psychology was going to play a heavy hand in this book, and there it was, in every chapter. But the far-out prose of the other books of hers I’ve read (Door to Door Nurse, Conflict for Nurse Elsa) is completely absent, making me think that Ms. Bowman must have gone on the wagon for the week or two it took her to pen this one. Shoreline Nurse is easily the best book of hers I’ve read to date, but coherent prose is just not enough to recommend any book, let alone this one.

This book was also published
with a really bad cover
as Nurse on Pondre Island

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Casino Nurse

By Diana Douglas
(pseud. Richard Wilkes-Hunter), ©1974
Cover illustration by G.H. Jones

Lovely Rena Stafford had been taught as a student nurse never to become involved in the private lives of her patients. But she found it impossible not to get caught up in the wealthy Madame Zeigler’s exciting, glamorous existence in Monte Carlo. Rena had never expected this strong bond to grow, nor did she expect the strange reaction of Madame Zeigler’s handsome nephew, Dr. Stephen Montrose, when she summoned him urgently to Monaco. When two of Madame Zeigler’s attractive friends from the casino, Mark Lassiter and Jean Auriol, began to vie for Rena’s affection, she was surprised—and strangely disturbed. But the biggest surprise of all was to discover she had fallen in love—with the very man who could only mean heartbreak.


“These are small and very expensive suites available for purposes other than gambling. I’m sure you know what I mean. They are very private.”

What the back cover blurb (above) doesn’t tell you is that Madame Anne Zeigler dies on page eight. Rena Stafford had been caring for Madame for the past year, living with her in a luxurious suite in Monte Carlo. Madame had leukemia, so it was just a matter of time. But now the hotel manager is on the phone, telling her that she has to pack her bags and get out in three days, when Madame’s monthly rent payment ends.

All of Rena’s salary had been held by Mrs. Zeigler—and then there’s the matter of a small loan of all her cash on hand that Rena made Mrs. Z three days ago, which had not yet been repaid—so Rena is scrambling for some ready cash and a place to live while she sorts out Mrs. Z’s final affairs. Fortunately, these two guys are hovering around, ready to help. Mark Lassiter is an old friend of Mrs. Z’s who works at the baccarat high tables at the casino, and Jean Auriol is a croupier at the chemin de fer tables. Another fella is on the way, too; Dr. Stephen Montrose, Mrs. Z’s nephew, who is in his last year of residency, is winging his way over from New York.

Fortunately for Rena’s fiscal situation, the job as casino nurse is open, and Mark Lassiter secures it for Rena. 
Though Jean’s early attempts to befriend Mrs. Z were shrugged off, he finds out about this and “arranges” for Rena to work nights so she will have her days free to go out with him, and then he calls and harasses Rena until she agrees to have lunch with him—though why you would have lunch with someone you find annoying is a mystery to me, particularly since he attempts to entice her by saying, “Please come. There’s nothing … sinister.” Right. Lo and behold, after lunch, though Rena is expected at a meeting with Mrs. Z’s attorney and tells Jean to bring her straight to town, he instead drives her to a secluded spot in the mountains and refuses to take her back until she kisses him. Like a good VNRN heroine, she does, and finds it “long and vaguely disturbing.” He presses her for more—and her hand over his “thudding” heart—until she threatens to walk back to town and actually gets out of the car. She makes the meeting with 15 minutes to spare. Unlike other VNRN heroines, she never goes out with Jean again—but only because he is never seen again for the remaining 50 pages of the book, with no clear explanation of why he was hanging around to being with.

Meanwhile, at a small gathering after Mrs. Z’s funeral, Steve learns of a gaming system that won an Englishman a great deal of money at the casinos: when red comes up on the roulette wheel, you bet $100 on red for the next spin. If you win, you double your money. You continue to bet red for the next five spins, leaving all your winnings on the table. Then repeat the process on black. Steve’s eyes light up when he hears this, and it isn’t long before he’s at the tables, and winning, too! Rena has to literally drag him away from the tables after he’s made $700 to go to the reading of his aunt’s will. It turns out Mrs. Z was worth about $40 million (between $175 million and $375 million in today’s money)! She leaves Rena $20,000 and a diamond and mink stole, Mark Lassiter inherits $50,000, and Steve gets the rest. After this, Steve goes straight back to the tables: “It really is a most exciting way of passing the time,” he says. “It’s not as if I intend to become an addict. Nothing like that at all.” Which is sure to keep him safe, because all those other addicts meant to get hooked.

Curiously, Rena does not even start working as a casino nurse until 35 pages from the end, after the will has been read. We first see her on the job when she’s been there a week. On this night, a countess attempts suicide with an overdose of barbiturates. The house doctor is home with the flu, so she calls Dr. Steve from the gaming tables to help. She politely waits for Steve to finish his game of baccarat, in which he loses a million francs—$100,000—and then “the fight to save the life of the Countess Isabella Galvani began.” As dawn breaks, the Countess is breathing easier and looking less blue, and Steve says, “You did a great job. Really special. I mean … really special.” Then he asks her how long she plans to keep working in the casino, and Rena tells him she’s quitting her job and returning to the States tomorrow. Naturally, he decides to go with her—and proposes out of the blue. Then it’s all over except some smooching. As Charlie Brown used to say, bleah.

Not much at all happens over the course of this book. And what does happen occurs over a glacial pace: The “race” to save the Countess takes 17 pages. The whole situation with Jean is totally “sinister,” to use his own word, more so because Rena can’t seem to say no, despite how much she dislikes him. It’s not out-and-out boring, but the most interesting things about this book are the cover illustration and the ad for Kent cigarettes bound into the middle.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Overseas Nurse

By Jennifer Ames, ©1951
Cover illustration by ?Lou Marchetti

At the Sydney airport, Nurse June Ray made her first error: she mistook a handsome stranger for her sponsor, Dr. Jed Lawson. Unaware of her mistake, June spent a romantic day and a half swimming in the dazzling sunlight and dancing under the stars. By the time she met the man with whom she had been corresponding and to whom she owed her last chance at a nursing career, her heart was no longer her own …


“Being young and pretty takes up a girl’s time – too much time.”

I suppose that we shouldn’t be too surprised that, as the book opens, Nurse June Ray is fleeing the country, heading for Australia. What I did find unusual is her reason for leaving: She fell asleep on night duty and her elderly patient died. The doctor on the case drummed her out of the hospital, saying, “Negligence is a mild way to express it, Nurse. I believe had you not gone to sleep your patient would be alive at this moment.” Ouch.

When she arrives in Sydney, she’s met by a hunky fella who drives a hot sports car. She keeps looking at his “strong and capable” shoulders. But soon she finds out he’s not Dr. Jed Lawson, the kindly doctor who befriended her brother Clive, cared for him in his final hours after a mysterious car crash, and invited her to Australia. He’s Ken Wyman, manager of the Gumbula sheep ranch, where Clive was working. The ranch is now owned by Shelah Wyman, the slinky widow of Ken’s older brother, Roy. Roy was a “semi-invalid,” wounded during the war, and an impeccable driver who nonetheless crashed his car for no apparent reason, killing himself and Clive and leaving the ranch to his not-so-grieving widow. Shelah keeps talking about selling the ranch, mostly to piss off Ken, but also because living out in the bush is too lonely for her. She’d be all right, she says, if only she were married again. “Roy was scarcely a husband to me for some time before he died,” she says, and is she looking at Ken’s strong and capable shoulders when she speaks?

The day Nurse June arrives at Dr. Lawson’s house, Ken’s grandmother, Mrs. Kensey, has another stroke and requires round-the-clock nursing care. So June is packed off to the ranch, where she and Ken can kiss behind closed doors from time to time while she cares for Mrs. Kensey. When she does have a bit of time off, June helps out Dr. Lawson, who soon makes a play for her, telling her how lonely he is and how he’d like to settle down. Um, gosh, how about those Red Sox?

Back at the ranch, June’s patient is always mumbling about another will that Roy made before his death. She tells June that Shelah creeps around the house at night looking for the will, and she is always trying to get out of bed to find it before Shelah does. She also refuses to drink any beverage that Shelah prepares, because “that’s how she murdered him.” Naturally, everyone assumes the stroke has made her dotty. Well, she is a bit dotty, calling June Claire, because June looks like Mrs. Kensey’s deceased daughter, Ken’s mother. To prove the point, Ken drags her into his room to show June a portrait of his dead mums, and then, in a scene that would keep Freud busy for weeks, kisses her repeatedly, stopping only to say, “You are so like she was.”

One night, in an uncharacteristic gesture of friendliness, Shelah brings June a cup of coffee to help her stay awake all night, along with a nice glass of hot milk for Mrs. Wyman. As June struggles to stay awake—curiously, the coffee seems to have made her more sleepy, not less—she remembers the last time she felt like this, the night her elderly patient died, when the patient’s crabby niece had brought her a cup of tea … June had felt so sorry for the gaunt thing, who had just overheard her aunt tell June she was going to change her will and leave her fortune to June …

The next morning, you may not be surprised to learn, Mrs. Wyman is found dead while June is sawing logs in her chair. Everyone is a pretty good sport about June’s role in the death, saying she’d been overworked and had been up for days with Mrs. Wyman, so they’re all willing to let this go. But at the inquest, June pipes up that she feels she was drugged, and mentions that it was Shelah who brought her the coffee. And then there are the cups they had drunk from, which have vanished, and no one seems to have taken them. Shelah responds by pulling out a letter that June had written to her brother, explaining in great detail what had happened with her first dead patient, and says that June is just trying to find excuses for her bad nursing. There’s no proof, so nothing comes of June’s allegations except that she feels compelled to leave the ranch on the next train for Sydney. And the train actually pulls out of the station with June on it, with no farewell whatsoever from Ken, and never mind that speeding sports car that passes the train just before it reaches the next station.

The ending of this book could be foretold by a ten-year-old, including the hiding place of the new will. But even so, it’s not a complete waste of time. It’s not campy or amusing at all, but the writing is decent enough, and some of the characters are fun to watch, most notably Shelah and Mrs. Wyman. It reads more like a modern-day romance story, with the couple in question kissing in one chapter and quarreling in the next, and a big misunderstanding keeping them apart until the very end. Well, not the very end, as the couple is actually married five pages from the last page, and spends a very satisfying (wink, wink) month-long honeymoon in Fiji, another rarity for a VNRN. The “mystery” aspect of it, though not very suspenseful, gives you something else to think about, and overall this is a fairly decent book.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Heiress Nurse

By Peggy Gaddis
(pseud. Erolie Pearl (Dern) Gaddis), ©1959
Also published as Settlement Nurse

Nurse Andrea Drake had grown up without parents. An orphan, she felt a special sympathy for the lonely, the sick, the needy. Her work at a settlement house in the city’s worst slum brought Andrea a fulfillment she’d dreamt of. But when a new surgeon was appointed, Andrea found herself embroiled in an old tangle, for he was the doctor who had once fired her from an important nursing assignment. The stage was set for, yes, another clash between the successful, experienced surgeon and the dedicated young nurse—and only brilliant Dr. Steve Jordan stood between them …


“ ‘Well, saints preserve us, and such-like expressions of wonder and gratitude!’ murmured Brad, awed. ‘The Ice Maiden is at last succumbing to my charms!’ ”

“I have to see you kick your whole nursing career into a cocked hat by daring to ‘sass’ one of these lordly beings, a doctor!”

“It’s blasphemy for a nurse even to think, let alone hint, that doctors, all of them, aren’t the smartest, wisest and most impregnable creatures in existence!”

“When a pretty girl speaks of another as a raving beauty, that means one of two things: either she doesn’t like the other gal, or else she’s jealous of her.”

I seem to be on a roll lately with feisty nurses who get themselves into trouble by spouting off (see Nurse on the Beach). Andrea Drake’s downfall came when she refused to carry out the orders of the famed and renowned Dr. Jason McCullers, diagnosing the “heart attack” that the patient was supposed to be suffering from as shingles. It turned out she was right, and the medication she was ordered to give the patient would have killed the patient (though from a medical standpoint this seems a bit sketchy), but Dr. McCullers isn’t in the least grateful; apparently he would rather have a dead patient and a thriving reputation than the opposite. So he’s drummed her out of nursing at his hospital and blacklisted her with every doctor in town for insubordination. But she’s not really broken up about it, for she lands a job at the Judson Settlement House, caring for the poor, the unwashed, the toothless. She’s an orphan herself, see, so she sympathizes with the down and out folks who really need her and call her Miss Andy.

As fate would have it, one of her last patients at Dr. McCullers’ hospital was an elderly woman who died without family and left Andrea a tenement building in the slums not far from where she works and a few thousand dollars to fix it up. Everyone tells Andrea she’s insane to consider keeping it, but you just can’t tell this gal what to do, so she spends all the cash inheritance to fix up and furnish the apartment that the old lady had lived in. She’s thrilled to have a home of her own for the first time in her life, and she plans to eventually redo all the other apartments, so her building will be a shining example of the middle class in a sea of poverty, inspiring the poor slobs around her to better themselves.

She’s home one day when there’s a knock on the door. It’s Dr. Steve Jordan, who wants to set up an office in the neighborhood. He interned with Dr. McCullers, who feels Steve ought to go into a lucrative practice and marry his daughter, Merry McCullers, but Steve wants to work in the slums for a year or two to gain valuable experience before he moves uptown. He rents the apartment across the hall from Andrea’s and sets up his office there. Andrea, forthright gal that she is, tells him at the outset that she has been blacklisted from the hospital and why, and he explodes in righteous anger and tells her that she will never work on a case of his!!! Whatever, she says, and moves on.

There’s a lot of fighting between the two, not improved when Dr. Steve diagnoses the upstairs neighbor as having a heart attack and Andrea suggests that he might want to consider shingles on his list of differential diagnoses. He runs a few more tests, and guess what? She’s right! Again! It takes several chapters before Dr. Steve forgives her for this, and he screams at her for telling the entire neighborhood about his blunder and ruining his practice, which she has not done, but he doesn’t apologize for that mistake, either. Curiously, Andrea has some fondness for Steve anyway. When spoiled brat Merry McCullers comes around to see Steve and screams in horror at the mossy patients in his waiting room, Steve comforts her in a way that makes Andrea see green.

Then Andrea catches an overweight 16-year-old trying to break into the medicine cabinet at the Settlement House for drugs to kill herself because she’s fat and unattractive and a certain boy won’t even look at her. After Andrea calms down the secretary, who wants to murder the girl herself for thinking of killing herself—“I’ll turn her across my knee and wallop her for the silly little fool she is,” the secretary says in a fairly common VNRN attitude about suicide—Andrea puts the girl on a diet. “You’ll get that boy, or one even better, just as soon as we can get you slimmed down and prettied up!” she says, and gets the idea to start a charm school for all the other fat, unattractive gals in the slum, another one of her neighborhood beautification.

Mrs. Judson, the wealthy old dowager who endowed the Judson Settlement House, has to go into the hospital for cancer, and insists that Andrea go with her as her special nurse. After a big row with Dr. McCullers, money has its way and Andrea packs her bags and takes a temporary leave of absence from the Settlement House. A couple of months later, she returns home to find Merry McCullers now frothing over the Settlement House gym teacher. “It’s got to be love, I’m sure,” says the secretary. “If you could see them together! He bosses her shamefully, and she loves it. I don’t suppose anybody ever dared try it before. But it seems to be just what the doctor ordered!”

Steve comes over for dinner and tells her he loves his disheveled patients so much that he’s never going to leave the slum. Then he proposes, saying that she’s “a pretty sassy piece when you disagree with a diagnosis … but for the wife of a doctor, it could be a very valuable trait.” It’s not clear if this means he has decided to allow her to work with him, or if she’s just supposed to be an armchair consultant, but no matter, she’s all for it. Cue Dr. McCullers, who shows up on her doorstep, declares her to be an excellent nurse and offers her a job at the hospital, followed shortly by the fat suicidal girl, now slimmer and with a clear complexion, and all is right in the world.

I did enjoy that the heroine had more than a little bit of spine to her. The ideas about how to beautify the slum—they’re not going to give everyone a fish, but a fishing pole—are mostly sound, and certainly not patronizing. Beautifying the girls is a different matter, but this is a book written in 1959 by an author from Georgia, so I’ll cut it some slack there. I do wonder how Steve and Andrea can be so vicious to each other on one page and then be friends the next, but Andrea is never tamed into submission as with some of Peggy Gaddis’ other books (see A Nurse for Apple Valley, Nora was a Nurse, Big City Nurse), which I appreciated. It’s mostly a straightforward story without any real twists, and even if it’s not as campy as Peggy can be when she’s in her full glory, it’s not a bad read.

Also published under
a different title

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Nurse on the Beach

Arlene Hale, ©1967
Cover illustration by Martin Koenig

From where she stood on the dune below the beach house, Meg could see the young man coming toward her at a rapid jog. His obvious joy at seeing her filled her with gratitude. Suddenly her mind went reeling back to Whitefield Memorial Hospital and her heartbreak at finding Dr. Lee Corey in the arms of a wealthy and beautiful patient. What was she to do when the man she loved had betrayed her? There was only one refuge to seek, Meg thought, as she looked up at the young man now standing close beside her. But would she ever rid herself of the memory of Dr. Corey?


“Take my advice, Meg, don’t ever go out with a traveling salesman.”

“You know what I wish we were doing right this minute?”
“Necking,” he guessed with a grin.

“No smooching after eleven o’clock. House rules. Break it up.”

“Wylie bribed me for just five minutes in here this morning. I think he wanted to see how you looked first thing in the morning with no make-up. Most women look pretty horrible. Wylie couldn’t stand to have a wife like that. It would kill him.”

Our heroine’s name is Meg Ryan, which can be a bit discombobulating. But this Meg Ryan has red hair (the otherwise excellent cover art to the contrary) and a temper to match, which does get her into hot water. Such as when her boyfriend, Dr. Lee Corey, is too busy with patient Ardis Kingley, who happens to be “attractive, rich, and single.” She also happens to be the daughter of the most influential member of Whitefield Memorial Hospital’s board of directors. It seems that the job of director of the hospital is open, and Lee wants it. So when another patient is dying fast in his room, and Meg sends an urgent message for Lee to come at once, he can’t tear himself away, and the old man dies in pain in Meg’s arms without his physician in attendance. In response, Meg tears off her nurse’s pin, throws it at Dr. Corey’s feet, and storms out of the hospital.

To cool off, she moves into a beach house belonging to her guardian, where she runs into Wylie “Pappy” Burke, a beach bum whom she’d previously met—and kissed—and who has been relentlessly pursuing her ever since, calling her at home and showing up at the hospital cafeteria to see her. Perhaps it was his estimation of her measurements (“30-23-30”) at their first encounter that caught her eye. But it isn’t too hard to tell that the relationship between Lee and Meg is bound for the rocks; in a book called Nurse on the Beach, we learn early on that “Lee didn’t like the beach and he didn’t like picnics. Somehow, this kind of fun was childish to him.” And when Meg suggests they go down to the beach for a swim, he answers, “I’d rather be playing golf,” a suggestion that causes Meg to wrinkle her nose in distaste. (Ardis, on the other hand, “was known as an exceptional golfer.”)

When Lee invites Meg to a bar so he can explain, Meg walks in to find another nurse cupping his hands for a light for her cigarette, flees the joint in a blind fury, and promptly hits a truck with her car. Wylie (I just can’t bring myself to call him “Pappy”), who has followed Meg, brings her to his house to nurse her back to health after her concussion, chaperoned by his feisty “Grandmère.” Wylie, it turns out, is a painter of some renown, and he lives and works at the beach.

Lee soon tracks her down at Wylie’s beach house and tells her that he was not told that the old patient was dying, and that he has the hospital director job. All is well for a moment or two, but then Lee tells her to pack her things and come on home, and she refuses. “You’re my girl,” he says. “What you do reflects on me!” She answers, “And we must not have any reflection on the new director. Oh, dear—”

After they kiss and make up and Lee leaves, Wylie enters and she spends some time kissing him. So the next day, when she stops by the hospital and catches Ardis Kingley kissing Lee, she is completely understanding and thinks nothing of it. No, wait, that’s not what happened. “What kind of game was Lee playing?” she asks herself, and when she meets him in the caf minutes later, she nastily wipes the lipstick off his face. “What was I supposed to do?” asks poor Lee. “I’m her doctor. I’m trying to make her well—” Actually, I can think of a number of things he ought to have done, none of which involve wearing another woman’s make-up, but that’s just me. When Meg accuses Lee of sucking up (maybe literally) to Ardis to get the job, he asks, “Am I going [to have to] take you over my knee and pound some sense into you?” The timeless VNRN threat of somewhat kinky yet humiliating violence snaps her out of it. “I guess I wasn’t being fair,” she says.

In a continuing effort to be fair, Meg spends a day with Wylie, sailing to an offshore deserted island, where they swim, kiss a lot, picnic, and nap. Wylie even proposes marriage, but she just cries. In the hospital the next day, Ardis waylays Meg and tells her to give up Lee. “I’m going to take him away from you,” she says. “Lee has ambitions that will take him to higher levels. I’m in a position to help him get there. Are you?” When it’s put this way, Meg can’t help but go to Lee and tell him that it’s over. “She’s right for you,” she says. “She wants the same things you want. That’s important in a marriage.” Then it’s off to the beach to track down Wylie and tell him that after all she doesn’t love Lee “with every nerve in her body,” as she did on the book’s third page.

This book wasn’t flashy, but it was fun, offered some plotting excitement (a storm, a surgery during a blackout, the rescue of a drowning child) to perk things up, and had some humor to it. And, at the risk of exposing myself to complete ridicule, it had some really sweet parts, like the scene where Wylie and Meg are on the island and Meg, napping on Wylie’s shoulder, is described as Wylie sees her, in an almost Hemingway-esque passage: “The sun caught all the fire of her hair and it was soft as it brushed against his face. Her lashes were long and curled at the end like a child’s.” We watch Lee go home after work one day and interact with his aged father, seeing the camaraderie and interdependence and gratefulness each has for the other, allowing us to understand why the hospital director job is so important to him. It’s more than the cursory VNRN usually offers, so if Wylie is not the most compelling love interest I’ve met (and in fact his stalking of Meg borders on creepy), I’m willing to forgive all and recommend this book, overlooking its warts for its curling eyelashes.